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Law enforcement grapples with when to make arrests in the COVID-19 era

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Between March and mid-November, close to 200,000 people in prison have tested positive for the coronavirus in the U.S. That’s according to data tracked by the Marshall Project, which says 318 of those cases are in North Dakota facilities.

The Burleigh County Sheriff estimates the Burleigh-Morton Detention Center has seen fewer than 15 cases, but there’s a reason that number is so low and it’s affecting officers on patrol.

“If we get COVID into this facility and lose control, we’re in trouble,” shared Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben.

That risk is why the Burleigh-Morton Detention Center is housing fewer inmates than usual. The average daily number of inmates there in November was down to 235. Outside of a pandemic, the facility would house closer to 300, but everyone who comes in has to quarantine for two weeks and beds are more spaced out.

Sheriff Leben says that’s been the policy, and that’s how it will continue for the foreseeable future.

“This is a limited resource, just like beds in a hospital,” he explained.

In order to keep the population down, officers and deputies out on patrol are making fewer arrests.

“It’s absolutely affecting the officers on patrol,” shared Bismarck Deputy Chief Randy Ziegler.

“When you have somebody that you know needs to be arrested and the Detention Center won’t take them, then the officer’s got to release those people, and then, they see those people again,” added Mandan Chief of Police Jason Ziegler.

…and thinking, you know, the whole psychological aspect of, ‘I just arrested this person, charged them, and now they’re right back out doing the exact same that I arrested them for hours ago or days ago.'”

The Police Chief fears it encourages people to re-offend.

There is no set policy dictating who and when officers can arrest, except that the North Dakota Court System suspended all warrants during the pandemic back in March.

“I think there’s some guidelines put out, but then there’s a lot of discretion left to the officer because they’re the person on the street at 3 a.m.,” Sheriff Leben explained.

He says the decision should come down to the risk level, adding, “Are they going to re-offend? Do they have a propensity for violence? If you have somebody that commits a B misdemeanor, they’re gonna come to court, they’re not gonna re-offend — or there’s a good likelihood they won’t, if we can keep that person out of jail to reduce that risk, I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Deputy Chief Randy Ziegler says the pandemic is forcing officers to think outside the box.

“When we have an individual that’s under the influence, typically you take them to jail and they sit there for eight hours and the officer goes on his way. For the most part, the jail isn’t taking those individuals so we have to use areas like West Central, or we have the individual stay with a relative, that sort of thing,” he elaborated.

It’s a direction the city and the state were already moving in before COVID-19 arrived.

There is one thing that all agencies are united on: “If there’s an individual that’s causing harm in our community, no matter what, that individual is going to be going to jail,” Deputy Chief Randy Ziegler said.

“We’ll make it work, we’ll figure it out,” Sheriff Leben assured.

And even when an arrest is not made, Chief Jason Ziegler said, “They’ll still be charged, they’ll still have to pay for the consequences.”

The common goal being to keep the community safe, which requires balancing arrests and keeping virus numbers down.

Since the pandemic began, the Bismarck Police Department has seen an uptick in both shoplifting and domestic violence. Just across the river, the Mandan Police Chief says there’s been a significant rise in domestic violence.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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